Supernatural’s Top 10 Milestone Episodes, from the Pilot to “Lebanon”

TV Lists Supernatural
Supernatural’s Top 10 Milestone Episodes, from the Pilot to “Lebanon”

Early on Thursday morning, more than a dozen hours before the big milestone episode itself was set to air, #SPN300 started trending.

“I wasn’t there from the beginning, but Supernatural changed my life,” one fan tweeted. “This show—the people in it, the people around it, the people who love it—changed me […] it gave me a sense of belonging and a sense that I had something I didn’t want to lose,” wrote another. From two more: “The best thing I’ve got from 300 episodes of #Supernatural are the amazing people I’ve met online and irl and some incredibly special friends who I would sell my soul for if I had one” and “what else is there to say about this that hasn’t been said already… For me, this show is home.”

Understatement will always be anathema to the superfans of any TV show, but with series as beloved and endlessly self-refreshing as Supernatural, the sentiment surging through the #SPN300 hashtag is less breathless zealotry than it is just… accurate. Furthermore, it’s a kind of sentiment that doesn’t exist on just one side of the screen:

I told myself I wouldn’t cry. No. That’s a fuckin lie. Why would I tell myself something I know was impossible?
300. I’m so grateful for and proud of everyone ever anywhere who took a step on this journey.
—Kim Rhodes (Sheriff Jody Mills)

We are a lucky bunch we are. <3 —Briana Buckmeister (Donna)

Could never have imagined what this show became and the good it’s done. Humbled and grateful beyond words to you all. #SPNFamily —Series creator Eric Kripke

Thank YOU, @therealKripke. The story you crafted has changed our stories forever. #SPN300 #SPNFamily #Supernatural —Misha Collins (Castiel)

Anyone who’s been paying even the slightest attention over the last 14 years will know that it isn’t just Sam’s brooding brow and Dean’s blue-steel stare that inspire such earnest passion (although those don’t hurt). It’s the depth of fraternal feeling that showrunners Eric Kripke, Sera Gamble, Robert Singer, Jeremy Carver and Andrew Dabb, along with series leads Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, have invested in the series from the beginning, and the delicate balance they’ve consistently maintained between that fraternal bond and the high-stakes, scary-as-shit road trip monster stories that give the emotional arcs a narrative frame. Plus, jokes. So many jokes! (“Very glad if I taught you anything,” Kripke tweeted to Gamble in the midst of the #SPN300 deluge. “And you taught me lots too, about how to write more rounded, more human characters, better dialogue, and the wittiest way to phrase a good genitalia joke.”)

Given how many other series that balance humor and heart and scary, high-stakes action and feature magnetically telegenic leads make it to air and still don’t last long enough to reach even a single milestone (RIP forever, Sweet/Vicious), there has to be more to Supernatural’s long-lived success than a killer formula and the combined electromagnetism of Ackles and Padalecki. We’ve spent some time here at Paste exploring some of what that extra might be, but after so many seasons, and with so many moving parts in play, attempts to piece together all the reasons Supernatural endures is a task best left to academics. Shakespeare? Dante? Chekhov? Meet the Winchesters. They’ll be your comp lit companions for centuries to come.

That said, while the whole #SPNFamily is still gathered together to celebrate this newest of the series’ many milestones, we here at Paste can at least do our part to add to future academic research by rounding up ten of the show’s biggest milestones—including, of course, “Lebanon,” the episode that launched tens of thousands of #SPN300 tweets—and digging into just what makes a Supernatural milestone a Supernatural milestone. (Hint: it’s not just about round numbers.) From the pilot to the Apocalypse, from Kevin to Lebanon, we’re here for it all. And while no one but Chuck/God can ever truly judge the Winchesters’ worth, we’ll put in our two pool-hustled cents on each milestone all the same. Chuck’s a bit busy in another universe, after all; why not take a page out of Lucifer/Michael’s book and try to step into his shoes?

“Pilot” (Episode 1.01)
Milestone: Premiere, baby!
Supernatural Rating: 100% Fresh

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Less a milestone than a cornerstone, “Pilot” hits Supernatural’s haunted highway running. Guest starring Sarah Shahi as the ghostly Woman in White who brings Sam and Dean together for their first hunt as adults, it is atmospheric, well-paced, and just as bloody as it needs to be to let the audience know exactly what they’re getting into. Above all else, “Pilot” underscores just how deeply Supernatural knew exactly what it was going to be from the very start. If it’s been years since you’ve watched it, you’ll be shocked at how many of the musical stings, facial expressions and moments of gruff brotherly chemistry that are so familiar to fans now were present even then. Dean and Sam are EXACTLY Dean and Sam, individually and as brothers; the ghost they’re hunting is EXACTLY as complexly human and credibly motivated as the monsters-of-the-week would be for seasons to come. Sure, some of the series’ worst qualities are present in the pilot, too, including Dean’s tendency to fall back on sexist language when excited and/or angry, and the problematic thread of Dead Women Catalysts the series has carried like an albatross through much of its run. Mostly, though, the big takeaway of the pilot—that Sam and Dean are good dudes trying their damnedest to save strangers from the kinds of monsters that derailed their young lives, while also trying their damnedest to be better brothers to each other than they were growing up the sons of an alcoholic hunter—is the big takeaway of the whole series. A series could hardly ask for a better cornerstone. (Photo: Justin Lubin/The CW)

“Lazarus Rising” (Episode 4.01)
Milestone: Castiel’s debut
Supernatural Rating: As God so commanded: Oh Hell Yes

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For a show that rarely gifts Sam and Dean with any new friends who might stick around long enough to become family, the few times it does so are worth noting. Jim Beaver’s debut as the Winchester boys’ surrogate father figure, Bobby, in “Devil’s Trap (1.22) nearly got included in this list as the first of these secondary cast additions, but considering where the series has ended up, Misha Collins’ psychic-blinding debut as Castiel, the humor-allergic, future-renegade angel who rescues Dean from Hell, felt, as far as milestones go, like the more obvious choice. Sure, Sam and Dean may define the series, but it wouldn’t be what it is today with the humanizing bond the two (but most especially Dean) have formed with the dangerous, brave, Heaven-defying weirdo that is Cass. Similarly, they wouldn’t have been able to stop the Apocalypse without him, or raise a Nephilim without him, or survive the hell that is our real world (see below) without him. And just in case we have to go even further to convince you of Cass’ importance (we do not, but we will), the sight in “Lebanon” of Castiel returned to the side of Heaven’s cruelest angels, his friendship with Dean and Sam lost to time, ends up being the one altered detail gut-level wrong enough to convince Dean that the magic they used to change the past had to be undone. The Angel Castiel: a milestone unto himself. (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/The CW)

“The Monster at the End of This Book” (Episode 4.18)
Milestone: Chuck Shurley’s debut / The first truly meta episode
Supernatural Rating: Yeah, we’d get that tattoo

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Coming in at No. 78 in the series’ long run, “The Monster at the End of This Book” is another milestone whose importance comes not from a big final 0 rounding out its count, but from the characters and concepts integral to Supernatural’s mythology that it introduces. In this case, those characters include prophet of God/writer of the cult hit Supernatural book series Chuck Shurley (Rob Benedikt), and those concepts include both prophecy as something new that might link the Winchesters to God, and notoriety as something the Winchesters might have to fend off more regularly should their hunting victories keep adding up. “The Monster at the End of This Book” also works as a more meta milestone, establishing as it does the mind-bending heights to which Supernatural the TV series was ready to start taking its reality-puncturing episodes moving forward, as well as how willing it was to give darkness a break and occasionally use its screwball energy to weave in important updates to the show’s mythology. Other meta episodes might give “The Monster at the End of This Book” a run for its funny money, but for how high it raised the bar on so many fronts, this is the meta episode to beat. (Photo: Michael Courtney/The CW)

“Point of No Return” (Episode 5.18)
Milestone: 100th episode
Supernatural Rating: 10 soulful brotherly stares/10 soulful brotherly stares

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For any show lucky enough to survive its first few seasons, the 100 episode mark is the one Big Milestone it might reasonably hope to hit; for the Supernatural of 2019, it’s just the aperitif. When “Point of No Return” first aired, though, it was with the prospect of Apocalypse—and with it, the end of Eric Kripke’s original, five-season vision—looming just a few episodes down the line. And so “Point of No Return” brought out all the big, milestone-ready guns it had waiting in its arsenal: Sam and Dean’s half-brother, Adam (Jake Abel), back from the grave for the only episode he would ever get to be just himself; Dean warning Cass that “the last time I got looked at like that, I got laid” before shooting him a wink; Zachariah (Kurt Fuller) telling Adam how “psychotically, irrationally, erotically codependent” Sam and Dean are on each other (and getting ganked by that same brotherly faith later on); Dean stepping back from the precipice of the day after a bruising heart-to-heart with Sam; Adam eating a pile of fast food hamburgers off a gilt platter laid out on a marble table while the world readies itself for the great battle between Good and Evil. (OK, that last one only resonates ironically hard in retrospect.) Much of the minutiae of “Point of No Return” is incomprehensible when watched without the context of the rest of the pre-Apocalyptic season, but the muscle Kripke and his team put into outdoing themselves for this first big milestone is more than obvious, and a testament to what heights the show could (and can still) reach, even in the middle of the biggest story it had taken on yet. (Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW)

“Swan Song” (Episode 5.22)
Milestone: Oh, only the Apocalypse is all (and the finale of Eric Kripke’s original five-season vision)
Supernatural Rating: Not Paradise, not Hell, just more of the same (13/10, would recommend to Chuck/God himself)

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“Swan Song” is a television marvel. If all series could go out so completely on their own terms, with so many threads from so many seasons tied off so neatly, television would be a lot more satisfying, to a lot more people. (Maybe not critics, but I think we’d cope.) Framed by Chuck Shurley reading from the final pages of Sam and Dean’s (and the Impala’s) story and punctuated by warmly filtered “home movie” footage bringing memories of the Impala’s/the boys’ early years to life, “Swan Song” brings the Winchesters, their allies, the Archangel Michael (in the vessel of Adam Winchester), and Lucifer to brink of war, then uses a combination of their brotherly love and hardheadedness to cut the Apocalypse off at the knees. It includes this powerful exchange between Castiel and Dean (“The only thing you’ll see out there is Michael killing your brother.” “Then I ain’t gonna let him die alone.”) and also Castiel throwing a Molotov cocktail of Holy Fire at Lucifer while screaming “HEY ASS-BUTT!” And then Sam sacrifices himself (and Adam), and Chuck disappears into thin air. It is an episode that truly contains multitudes.

Of course, the irony is that not even Supernatural, the series to which “Swan Song” belongs, got to go out on the terms this wonder of series finales set out. But as Chuck so cannily notes before evanescing, “Then again, nothing really ever ends, does it?” If that’s not Supernatural in a prophet-y nutshell, nothing is. (Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW)

“The French Mistake” (Episode 6.15)
Milestone: Proof that Supernatural had legs past the Apocalypse
Supernatural Rating: So hyped to be one of the Mishamigos

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There is no end to “Best Of” lists of Supernatural episodes available on the internet—hell, I’ve even written one of them—but while the final mix of episodes contained in each will differ depending on the parameters of the list, or the tastes of the list writers, the one episode that you’re likely to find on every single one of them is the uber-meta Season Six offering, “The French Mistake.” Also known as “the one where Sam and Dean crash through a window onto the set of Supernatural where they are mistaken for actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles and then later actor Misha Collins is killed while tweeting” (re: Cass being important to the boys in all situations, see above), this is the episode that is also pretty universally agreed upon as the one that reassured fans that even with Eric Kripke out of the showrunner’s seat, the show still had enough of that old Supernatural magic not just to limp along, but to thrive. This episode is funny, and like so many of the funny episodes before and after, uses that humor to propel the boys through whatever emotional and narrative muck might then be bogging them down. As a standalone episode, “The French Mistake” is a corker; as a milestone now way behind the halfway mark of the series’ run, it’s solid as (real, not movie-set) stone. (Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW)

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Episode 8.01)
Milestone: 150th episode
Supernatural Rating: Um… kinda racist?

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150 episodes into Supernatural’s run, Dean is only just returning from a year trapped alone in Purgatory, while Sam spent that same period of time shacking up with a lady and a dog and ignoring new prophet Kevin Tran’s (Osric Chau) increasingly pissed-off calls. Compared to the 100th episode, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is easier to jump into without watching the episodes leading up to it, but only just, and any increase in legibility is offset entirely by the discomfort of much of the episode’s humor. Sam and Dean’s relationship is in one of its troughs as this season opens, which is contextualized by their opening conversations but is still a bummer to watch in a vacuum. Crowley is in the mix by this point, but the degree to which he is willing to lie down, as it were, with Sam and Dean is unclear for anyone who hasn’t recently watched more than the “Previously on…” montage. Kevin’s emotional entanglement with the boys, too, is hard to pin down—a task made all the harder by the repeated bits of jarringly racist “jokey” dialogue about both him and his ex-girlfriend, Channing, (Lissa Neptuno) who is later, following the series’ other, longer-running flaw, possessed by a demon and brutally dispatched by Crowley as a means to a Kevin-destroying end. It’s not the series’ worst episode, but it’s definitely lowest among the milestones. It is what it is—imperfect, and true to the series’ least commendable elements. (Photo: Ed Araquel/The CW)

“Fan Fiction” (Episode 10.05)
Milestone: 200th episode
Supernatural Rating: Worth breaking the fourth wall, every time

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Sam: So why this story, huh? Why Supernatural?
Calliope: Supernatural has everything. Life, death, resurrection, redemption. But, above all, family. All set to music you can tap your toe to. It isn’t some meandering piece of genre dreck. It’s epic! And that… Well, that is my bag of tea.

No offense to “Lebanon,” which will get its due in a moment, but as far as this fan is concerned, “Fan Fiction” is the milestone episode to end all milestone episodes. Like most of the “fun” episodes, it completely works as a standalone episode outside of its seasonal context. With its premise—a girls’ high school theater program staging a musical adaptation of Chuck Shurley’s Supernatural series—it even, like the series’ best episodes, works as a standalone for people who’ve never previously watched a single minute. In setting the story at a high school, and staging the play with all teen girls, it nods to the women, young and old, who have long made up the core of the series’ passionate, supportive fandom. In putting Sam and Dean in conversation with student director Marie (Katie Sarife) about what parts of their lives she’s chosen to include and why—yes to Destiel, no to the author-insert of Chuck (who here makes his first reappearance in the series since “Swan Song”)—the creative team behind Supernatural, Ackles and Padalecki included, engage with fans in an earnest, if limited, way (including letting Ackles break the fourth wall to stare at the camera when given an explanation of Destiel). It is an example of Supernatural at its warmest and most self-assured, and we are lucky to have it. (Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW)

“First Blood” (Episode 12.09)
Milestone: 250th episode
Supernatural Rating: L’enfer, c’est les hommes

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Season Twelve’s British Men of Letters and Lucifer’s Baby Fever storylines could be a real slog, but the 250th episode, which saw Sam and Dean get whisked into the custody of the American military and locked away in a FBI/CIA/Homeland Security blacksite for more than six months after attempting to assassinate the President (read, exorcising Lucifer from his body), was a compelling (if grim) bright spot. The Winchesters so rarely have to face obstacles that are entirely human that when they do, both the insanity and the comfort of what their lives are like on a regular basis is brought into sharp relief. Insane because, duh, monsters, but comforting because, while humans can occasionally be just as dangerous as monsters, monsters, at least, you can flat-out kill—in fact, for 12 seasons and counting, killing had been the go-to move in Sam and Dean’s arsenal. For them to have to take this 250th milestone episode to rescue themselves from the human soldiers holding them without resorting to murder required, then, a kind of raw ingenuity not seen since the series’ earliest seasons. It also required them to engage in more explicitly moral decision-making than had been seen in awhile at that point—a morality whose importance is underscored by Cass who, in declaiming the fandom’s thesis near the end of the episode, tells Sam, Dean and Mary (Samantha Smith) that “This world, this sad doomed little world, it needs you; it needs every last Winchester it can get.” (Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW)

“Lebanon” (Episode 14.13)
Milestone: 300th episode (#SPN300)
Supernatural Rating: 3 out of 4 Winchesters ain’t great, but it also ain’t bad

To quote a meme Cass wouldn’t recognize in a million years: First of all, HOW DARE YOU.

“Lebanon,” coming smack in the middle of the Whoops-Dean-Became-Michael’s-Vessel storyline that has made up the bulk of Supernatural’s 14th season, is a milestone episode much closer in spirit to “Fan Fiction” than to “Point of No Return,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” or “First Blood.” Not because it’s fun—apart from Dean nerding out to ganking John Wayne Gacy’s deranged clown ghost and Sam blanching at the Jobsian vegan dipstick his alternate self became without hunting, nothing about the emotionally fraught Winchester family reunion anchoring “Lebanon” is fun—but because, in setting the majority of the episode within an alternate timeline, it dispenses with most of the season’s narrative brambles and just lets the boys—plus Mary, plus, in an emotional return guest appearance, John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, acting the hell out the whole episode)—just breathe for a minute. Like, a really, really short minute, but a minute all the same.

It’s difficult to know how well “Lebanon” will work as a standalone episode once the discrete plot elements of this season are as impossible to recall as those defining, say, “Point of No Return.” But the ember smoldering hottest at the heart of Supernatural has always been the importance of family, and how broken Sam and Dean were by losing theirs to tragedy (well, demons) so early on, so the impact of all four Winchesters getting to sit down together for a family dinner—of John getting to tell Dean and Sam how proud he is of them, of John and Mary getting to have their big farewell—is likely to hit just as hard in two, seven, 20 years as it does now. As will Dean’s coming to terms with how his life has turned out, the hell of all his 40-odd years, and choosing to choose the person he’s become as a result: “Say we could send Dad back, knowing everything,” he tells Sam, humoring Sam’s frustrations at their predicament. “Why stop there? Why not send him further back, and let some other poor sons of bitches save the world? But then here’s the problem: Who does that make us? Would we be better off? Maybe. But I gotta be honest, I don’t know who that Dean Winchester is, and I’m GOOD with who I am, and I’m good with who you are. Because our lives, they’re ours. And maybe I’m just too damn old to want to change that.”

Not to get overly zealous about it, but if we’re not mistaken, that’s precisely what the #SPNFamily spent the whole day of the 300th episode saying: Supernatural changed my life. For me, this show is home.

Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on The CW. It was just renewed for its fifteenth season. It will outlive us all.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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